Little nibbles

Back in my second post ‘Baby Steps’ I mentioned our first client.

And I want to tell you how that worked for us, as a new business.

Our first bit of paid work was for an ex-client. It was important that we re-gained their trust (following the demise of my previous employer). We had to take little nibbles.

First they asked us to re-run a project I was previously involved in – the project wasn’t very valuable but it was a start.

During the course of that project they asked us to re-do a bit of creative that another agency had done, again a wee little invoice, but an invoice none the less.

We worked hard to ensure everything about the project was immaculate, the code, the design the client-management – I needed it to be a shining example of how a project should be delivered. This isn’t against the norm for us, this is what we believe in – that every single project should be immaculate, without-fail.

The project was a success, the results were outstanding (this is as much due to the pure blind luck of a campaign theme that really ‘resonated’ (yes, I said it) with the client’s audience).

So it was decided that this campaign should carry-on, until the end of year, being refreshed regularly – another wee invoice, another little nibble.

Due to the success of the campaign for that brand, another brand (same client) wanted their own version of the campaign – another wee invoice, another little nibble.

And so word of our service spread within the company – and another two brands are now interested in the same campaign, re-purposed for their needs, more invoices, more nibbles.

Another brand, within the same company, asked us to make them an entirely different campaign – which we’re in the process of doing now, another invoice, another nibble.

The more we work for this client, the more we learn about how they work, what they need from us, where the likely pit-falls are, who to turn to to speed things along. This knowledge allows us to build process efficiencies – each rotation, each new brand, takes less time planning and means that our delivery is more efficient.

What I’ve learned, is that a tiny little in-road, a tiny little opportunity, so long as your delivery is immaculate can open a whole enterprise of opportunities.

So if you’re offered a wee little project, with a value of less than £10k, take it, take it and make it the very best you can, over-deliver, even if it feels like you’re losing money to it, because if you do it right it will help sustain your business.

I am super-aware of one thing: this could only happen because my client has brand teams that talk to each other, they share their successes across the business. So our success with them was not happening in silo, it was learned from cross-brands. Not all companies are set-up like this, sometimes you need to do more of the leg-work.

How to start a business with £3,000*

I feel a bit premature writing this, as our business really is still such a baby

(we have a decent client, opportunities with a few of the ‘big boys’, we have just started drawing income, eight months after we started).

*and I should add, that’s £3,000 business capital, I still had to pay my living expenses for eight months – but it turned out to be much less than I’d anticipated.

I’d always imaged that to start a business you’d need a business loan/ venture capital/ a lovely nest egg. But so far we’ve done without it, here’s the specifics:

  • The day I lost my job I had about £5.5k in the bank, I was also given a total of £3k by the National Insurance Fund in Q4 2013 – upon the company I worked for going into liquidation
  • I live with my boyfriend
  • Our living expenses were based on the fact I’d take home £4,125 per month, alongside boyf’s £2,000 – our flat is over £1,800 per month, we lived a decent London lifestyle – our outgoings were approx. £5k per month

First thing – personal budgeting:

  • We worked out our actual financial needs:
    • Rent (£1,820 p/m)
    • Bills (gas, electricity, phones, Virgin media, water, council tax, insurance)
    • Travel (£120 per month x 2)
    • Food (£55 p/w – we always over spend on this)
    • Spending money (£100 p/w – this usually gets absorbed into food)
    • Forthcoming expenses: birthdays, weddings etc.
  • This came to £3,600 per month
    • We plotted it into Google doc, which we have used every month since July 2013
    • Once a week I update the Google doc with current figures
    • Every month we get to week 2.5, I think we’re doing really well, then in wks 3-4 we ruin it, only just coming in on budget
  • Bits and pieces of cash (birthdays, Christmas etc.) went into the fund
  • I opened a second bank account
    1. Current account – the £3,600 we need for that month
    2. Savings account –  any additional funds

Business set-up:

I drew-up a financial forecast, for the first seven months of the business we would need to spend £3,000

This was split:

  • Hosting, servers, providers (e.g. Google Apps and Git hub) etc.
  • Telephone line (one of those answer machine services)
  • Stationary (business cards etc.)
  • Insurance
  • Day-to-day expenses (coffee for clients)
  • Freelance support
  • Accountancy fees (about £300 for the first 7 months)

I did not have £3,000 to add to the funds, one of the other directors loaned it to the company (at a rate of interest confirmed in our Shareholder’s Agreement).

This worked for us, for the following reasons:

  • We largely have the skillset we need to not only have the ideas, but to deliver them – hence our spend on additional resource was limited to one freelancer
  • We largely had the kit we needed, old PCs to act as servers, home computers, a personal Mac book – when we move to an office and need to up-scale this will get expensive
  • The Internet – the lovely, bloody, wonderful, internet – this meant that we can communicate freely, collaboratively and regularly without having to be in an actual office

We will be looking into an office as soon as finances allow – more on that nearer the time.

If we had to buy-in people or kit our £3,000 would have served us for about a week, but because we had these things. It kept us going for seven months.

The day our first invoice was paid, my savings were depleted to the point that I wouldn’t have been able to pay my next month’s rent.

If payment of that invoice had have been late (and let’s face it, payment often is) – I’d be in a very difficult position right now, trying to work out who would be the best person to borrow money from not to lose my house.

But it IS possible to get going, without a huge nest-egg, it’s scary as hell, every single day – but it’s possible.


Our first big invoice has been paid, ON TIME and EVERYTHING.

This is a momentous day, it’s the day it feels like we can make it. This is the first time we can pay ourselves.

We have a meeting with our accountant this morning to confirm next steps.

From my understanding:

  • Revenue – expenses (including: payment of freelancers, telephony, banking, accountancy, servers, hosting etc.) = Operating Profit
  • Operating profit – 20% for Corporation Tax = Retained Profit
  • Retained Profit x 60% = the recommended max. amount for dividends
    • Remaining Retained Profit (40% > should be saved)

Of course, the max. 60% may not be suitable, this depends on our pipeline for the next few months (which exists, but is not as full as I’d like). As much as paying ourselves is important, and necessary, we have obligations, to our clients, to our service providers, but above and beyond all, we have one singular responsibility:

We look after our ‘people’ – our ‘people’ is in fact one freelancer, a long time colleague and great friend, it is the rule, his payment comes first, always and without fail

Playing with the big boys

On Friday a consultancy opportunity fell into our lap – a friend of a friend’s sister is consulting with one of those corporate monoliths. You know the type; enormous glass swing doors, corp dress code, job functions and departments with mind-blowing acronyms. This reminds me, for the first time in months,  that my hair doesn’t do that thing that corporate women’s hair does.

So here I am, an hour early. I’m always a bloody hour early, diligence has got to the point of making me inefficient. Just sitting in Starbucks (I’ve been meaning to boycott Starbucks for years now, I’m pretty sure I disagree with everything they stand for: creative tax avoidance,  ruination of the independent coffee shop, they are the purveyors of branded, fashion ‘coffee-drinks’, and look at the size of the cups,  you’d never get that in Europe).

I’m drinking the sweetest coffee concoction they’ll sell me, because I didn’t have time for breakfast. I toyed with grabbing some sashimi on the go, then promptly remembered it’s that type of thing that landed me in this mess.

I’ve read a 26 page report. I think I know what’s what. I just hope that I don’t make any horrendous faux pas’. When I’m nervous I talk more, and the more I talk,  the more chance there is that I’ll be an idiot.

Turns out a ‘venti’ anything is not good for calming the nerves.

Baby steps

The first few weeks were hard.

I missed having a client base, I missed receiving 100 emails over night, I missed being so busy I didn’t take a pee until after lunchtime – OK I missed feeling important.

There were a lot of meetings between the other two shareholders and I, and we sorted out all the things that need sorting out, we:

  • Chose a company name
  • Defined company values
  • Registered ourselves as a Ltd. company
  • Found an accountant
  • Wrote a shareholders agreement
  • Wrote a business plan
  • Set-up the infrastructure for working together (emails, domain names, accountancy software for our literally zero money)
  • We hatched a plan for a social technology tool that, based on our experience over the past 4 years is something clients will want to buy
  • We wrote sales plans, pitches, documents
  • Wrote a fiscal forecast – based on literally guessing and adding some margin of error
  • I cold-called every digital media agency in London
  • I cold-called every PR agency in London
  • I cold-called every media buying agency in London
  • I realised I fucking hate cold calling
  • I attended some meetings
  • I spent a lot of time on Imgur
  • I felt guilty

It was tricky, the clients I had loved to infinity within my previous role had a bad taste in their mouth from the demise of my previous company. They’d paid, often hundreds of thousands of pounds to a company that no longer existed to provide them with services. I was a harsh reminder of their disappointment.

It was a slow game, of getting back in touch with those old contacts, re-meeting them as our current company, slowly gaining their trust – and then..three months in, just as I was beginning to wonder if it’d all been a terrible mistake*…there was a win.

One ex client wanted to re-run a project they’d done with us before, in my old job, the project wasn’t worth a lot, but it felt like a million dollars.

The client’s procurement process was…lengthy… followed by a security process that was…genuinely amazing. But we got there, having signed, countersigned, amended, appended and re-approved about thirty documents, we were in. And now, more than ever, our work had to be immaculate.

We were (and are) eternally grateful to regain their trust. We were doing the same work as we’d always done, whilst in the background we had a super-mega-plan to create the social technology tool. So we hired one of our favourite developers from the old company as a freelancer. So as we could work on both areas of business concurrently. Of course his payment had to come out of one of the shareholder’s pocket.

Not getting distracted from the game-plan was crucial, it’d be oh so easy to slip into being just another social media agency.

From that first contract, another arrived – and soon, this month we will be paid for the first time since June 2013.

How had I survived, financially? The National Insurance Fund – getting repaid redundancy and holiday pay (even at stat. min.) has tided us over. My dear boyfriend and I have a stringent financial plan, everything is accounted for. We eat a lot more vegetables than we did before, and a whole lot less shellfish and steak. We have grown to salivate at the smell of simmering green lentils, we have been out for dinner once in the last seven months. We bought our New Years dinner with John Lewis vouchers we’d received for Christmas.

But it hasn’t been hard. It’s be different, but not difficult. I now realise how gauche, entitled and greedy I had become, and how I was so carefree with money that I was careless.

What is difficult is the worry, the ‘what ifs’, what if the client doesn’t pay on time? What if there is something grossly wrong with the invoices we’ve sent that hasn’t been noticed yet?

Halfway through this month I will run out of savings, if the client has not paid on time it will be fucking awful.

I am trying hard not to resent those with better luck, people with savings (note: this is nothing to do with luck, it’s just that I was a prick), and trying concurrently not to beat myself up about being shit with savings, or forget how important it will be to actually save some money, when I have some to save. The fear of having not enough money to pay my rent is something I haven’t experienced in a decade, and I honestly thought I’d never feel again. I am lucky, in many ways, there are people I could go to, people who’d lend me a month’s rent, but I desperately want to make this work, of course I want to be a ‘success’ I just don’t want to become a work wanker again.

*this is a lie, I wonder if it was a terrible mistake about once every three hours

The end, before the start (up)

You probably know one of me, I was one of those people you hate.

I moaned all the fucking time regularly about working 14 hour days, and how I ‘could keep working for a week straight and not finish my To Do list’. I was the master of the humble-brag; with the insinuation always being how deeply successful I must be.

I never turned off my BlackBerry, there was no one in the world that could respond to client requirements nearly as efficiently as me, no siree.

I started to use those  bullshit bingo buzz phrases as if they meant something, I could ‘push back’, ‘elevate a conversation’, ‘braindump’ and do some ‘ideation that really resonated’ with the client, without breaking a sweat.

I lost patience with those I considered lazy, or inefficient, or anyone who performed any task in any other way than the exact way I would have done it.

I was a work wanker.

And I felt okay, because I was a ‘success’.

It goes against everything I really believe; I’m a left leaning, open-doors, inclusive, europhile – I believe the pursuit of personal wealth to be ugly, money to be meaningless – but cold hard cash provided the perfect binary qualification for ‘success’. And that’s what I really wanted, to be a success.

Then one July day 2013 it ended.

A meeting was arranged at 14:00 GMT (09:00 EST) for the entire company to gather in their respective boardrooms, for ‘an announcement’.

The announcement was that we were all fired* whilst the company underwent a restructure.

I felt robbed, robbed of the hours, of the nights I worked until I could no longer focus on my Excel document because my left eye was looking in an entirely different direction, robbed of the friendships that felt close to familial relationships that we had built across our team, robbed of the care I’d put into every last detail of every client project, and worst, robbed of myself.

My identity had become so intertwined with my job that I didn’t know what to do. I was the friend that was late, and stressed and tired, and would buy the bloody champagne because I bloody could. And then, nothing.

Amongst my first thoughts were that there was no way in hell I would ebay my Chloe handbag or Valentino wallet…and then I thought of my rent….and bills…and food….and oh shit, I  had £5.5k in the bank (I am a shit saver) and no idea where my next paycheque was coming from, or who was paying it.

I thought the best thing to do would be to get a new job, I was good at jobs.

But I had a meeting with a couple of my colleagues, and we decided to do something together, something that was ours. Something that we could pour our hearts and time and care into, and wouldn’t crumble beneath us.

We knew we wanted to do good business, with good clients, good strategy, good process, good ethics, good technology. We had no money, no clients, and we only had the smallest nugget of an idea – but there had never been a better time.

*of course this violates about one hundred employment laws, but by the time we’d launched a tribunal the company was in Administration.